Luce Seeks to Shine Greater Light on Religion in Public Life

One of the more encouraging funding trends we’ve seen in higher education is the move back toward programs focused on the humanities. While nobody disputes the importance of increasing America’s scientific and technological prowess (we certainly don’t!), an emphasis on STEM at the expense of other disciplines is counterproductive in the long run.

Funders are recognizing this, and recently we’ve seen a series of grants aimed at the humanities and social sciences. One area that has received some of this attention is the study of religion, which has often been regarded as the province of seminaries and theological schools for aspiring ministers. The current twist is examining the role of religion in social, economic, and political life.

Data from the Pew Research Center indicates that the influence of religion in the U.S. is declining, and a growing number of Americans claim no religious affiliation. Despite this, the U.S. remains one of the world’s most religious nations, and nobody can dispute the role religion plays in public life. Religious belief has been a central factor in some of the most contentious conflicts in recent history, including the Northern Irish “troubles,” the civil wars in the former Yugoslavia, and the rise of the Islamic State terrorist organization. Religion also plays a central role in the so-called “culture war” in U.S. politics over such issues as abortion, same-sex marriage, and the overall role of religion in public life.

The Henry Luce Foundation is one funder that has always been interested in religion and its role in national and international affairs. Its Religion and International Affairs and its Theology programs provide grants for programs at the intersection of religion, higher education and public life. The program in Religion and International Affairs explicitly seeks a greater understanding of religion as a dimension of national and world politics. Recently, Luce funded an interdisciplinary center at one of California’s most prestigious universities that is actively engaged in a greater exploration of the links between religion and political and economic issues.

Luce awarded a $1 million, three-year grant to the Berkeley Center for the Study of Religion at the University of California-Berkeley. The Berkeley Center is only two years old, but center leaders hope these new funds will fuel its growth. Grant funds will support the Berkeley Public Theology Program, which strives to help students navigate the complexities of globalization and sectarian violence.

In addition, the grant will support research by Berkeley faculty into the links between economics and theology, how religious practice shapes people’s lives, and the challenges of interreligious conflict and theological pluralism. Finally, funds from the Luce grant will support two postdoctoral fellows, up to 16 graduate student fellowships, curriculum development, and workshops and conferences on theology and the public university.

The grant to Berkeley is one of the Luce Foundation's largest under its Religion and Public Affairs program. It gave more than $500,000 earlier this year to fund fellowships in religion and international affairs at the U.S. State Department, but most other grants in this program have been smaller, ranging from $20,000 to $50,000. There is no shortage of complexity in a world marred by sectarian conflict. Here's hoping that the work funded by Luce leads to new insights into some of today's most contentious issues.